Ah, a thorny issue here! First, a bit of background info. There are around 70,000 Chinese characters. I know, I know – it’s a lot. However, the vast majority of these are no longer in use. Studies in China have shown that for functional literacy, most people need between 3-4,000 characters. For a foreigner, 1,000 characters is going to give you decent fluency. So that sounds a lot more doable. Especially when you find out that there are 200 characters called radicals that are very common and often make up other characters. Know your radicals and you can often have a good bash at working out more complex characters.
In this age of smartphones and tablets, how do Chinese people enter characters into their devices? Well, they use pinyin. Pinyin is the Romanised alphabet version of Chinese i.e. it uses our alphabet. In fact, Chinese children learn pinyin first in school and then move on to characters. This begs an important question. Writing characters by hand is a slowly dying art in China. So should your child learn how to do it? One thing I can tell you for sure is that children love learning characters! The first question we are asked when we start teaching Mandarin is “when do we start learning characters?”.
Sure, your children can learn spoken Chinese without learning characters, but what happens when they go to China and can’t read a menu or signs? I think it’s important to be able to recognise characters, for sure. Whether they also need to be able to write them, well that’s up for debate. Character writing is still part of all the mainstream exams and is an enjoyable part of learning Chinese for most children. Learning characters in general offers a fascinating insight into Chinese culture, which is as important as learning the language and the reason we created our Dragons Detectives cultural series. Going back to my original question as to whether your kids should learn Chinese characters, I would say yes, they should learn to read and write them, as long as they enjoy it!